The Peripheral

By William Gibson

William Gibson is one of the smartest writers around. This doesn’t mean he’s difficult, but he can be hard to keep up with.

The Peripheral starts off by throwing the reader into the deep end of a complex story set in a future world rich in highly-advanced technology. Or actually two future worlds. Only gradually do the pieces fall into place and you begin to understand what is going on.

The narrative is a tale of two futures, one fairly close to our own time and the other a bit further out. Gibson alternates between them but they are connected. Time travel hasn’t been invented, but there is a way to send information backward and forward in time so that you can communicate with different “continua.”

A continua is any timeline, including alternate realities created by cross-temporal signallings. You see, once you communicate with an earlier time you change it, creating a “fork in causality,” with the new branch being “causally unique.” These bastard continua branches are called “stubs.”

The final essential bit of nomenclature is “peripheral,” which is a mechanical avatar that someone from the near future can project his consciousness into and inhabit in the far future. Consciousness just being another form of information, it is able to do the time warp thing where our bodies can’t.

If that sounds complicated, and full of the sort of time-travel paradoxes you expect from the genre, what makes things even more disorienting is that you have to wait a while before it finally gets explained. Gibson is not an author much given to exposition, and prefers readers to figure things out for themselves.

Once you get a handle on what’s going on, however, you can settle in and enjoy one of Gibson’s best books yet: fast-paced and chock full of fascinating speculations into not only what the future will look like, but how it will work.

In the near future timeline a young woman named Flynne Fisher gets involved in a case of far-future murder when someone from that continua reaches out to put the touch on her. It seems a high-profile society woman has been spectacularly disassembled, and the investigation needs Flynne as a witness to discover whodunit and why.

Both futures are crammed with the kind of technological and political details that Gibson loves to describe. Even getting a breakfast burrito in a drive-through turns into quite a complex adventure.

In the near future, Flynne’s world, the economy seems to be based mainly on an advanced form of 3-D printing and the manufacture of artificial drugs (a process called “building”).

In this ragged new post-industrial America, the business of “making things” has become decentralized and apolitical. There are surveillance drones constantly circling overhead, but no clear legal authority is in operation. “Homes” (homeland security) has an over-the-horizon presence, but local law enforcement apparently goes to the highest bidder.

Skipping ahead, the far future is a radically depopulated place due to an event referred to as the Jackpot that has wiped out a good percentage of the human race. As with Flynne’s world, no one entity has a monopoly on violence, which makes things rather dangerous. There’s a state police force, but robber barons, subsecond financial traders, oligarchs, and corrupt politicians all seem to have private enclaves and power bases within the deep state.

Paranoia and technology go hand-in-glove in Gibson, along with a sense of chaos bubbling just under the surface of things. Few of the actors in The Peripheral seem to have any idea who is pulling whose strings, and at times you have the sense that nobody is, and that technology itself is in the driver’s seat. Adding to this sense of uncertainty is the complexity of the plot and Gibson’s jittery, unconventional prose. Readers who don’t pay attention will soon be lost.

Gibson is not a difficult writer but he is demanding, and here those demands are well rewarded. The Peripheral is intellectual entertainment of the first order, a pop SF thriller that will make you think.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 14, 2014.

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